The Columbus Free Press

Reflections on Black History - Part 21
California's First Black Politicians

by Thomas C. Fleming, Feb 11, 1998

California politics has always been controlled by big money. At one time, the Southern Pacific Railway held immense political power, and it was said that members of the legislature could be bought like sacks of potatoes.

The California state legislature has two branches -- the state Assembly, with 80 members, and the state Senate, with 40 members. The first black politician to hold statewide office in California was Fred Roberts, who was elected to the California Assembly in 1918 and served until 1934. He represented a district in Los Angeles that included the black neighborhood of Watts.

Like nearly all black politicians of his time, Roberts was a Republican -- the party of Lincoln. He was a party regular who did what the party leaders dictated. I don't think he ever sponsored a piece of legislation that he initiated. Apparently he was a very conservative man, or he wouldn't have been elected in the first place. He was a businessman who had a very successful mortuary business, and had been involved in civic affairs in Los Angeles, which was probably the reason he ran for office.

Roberts was very careful to never differ with the Republicans, who controlled the state and permitted some blacks to share in the spoils, just enough to keep a few black Republicans happy, who in turn would come to the black communities and extol the virtues of being a Republican.

Roberts was a symbol of pride to blacks in the state, and when the legislature was not in session, he would constantly travel all over California, visiting every town of any size where one found black people living. He would come to the upper Sacramento Valley quite often, including to the town of Chico, where I lived from 1919-26, and would speak at churches, or at the private homes of those who wore the mantle of being the number one black in the community.

I met him in Chico when I was about 13, but he didn't speak on that occasion. Another time, Roberts came to Marysville, about 40 miles south. Of course the blacks in Chico heard of his coming appearance, and those who had transportation went down to meet the good man. I went by way of the Sacramento Northern Railway; you could get a round-trip ticket for 75 cents. He spoke at a black church, and was warmly received. He wasn't campaigning, because people couldn't vote for him outside his district. He was going as the sole black in the state legislature.

Roberts made quite an impression on the simple people who lived in the small towns, because they could not figure in their own minds how he had won an election in a world which seemed dominated by white power. A majority of the people in his district were black.

Roberts would tell us of some things that blacks were doing in Los Angeles. The city had black police and firemen, black schoolteachers, and blacks working for other departments in the city. In San Francisco, the nearest big city to the Sacramento Valley, no blacks were hired for any of these jobs until decades later. In 1940, San Francisco still had only two black employees on the city payroll -- Walter Sanford, the receptionist at the mayor's office, and Miss Floyd Green, a psychiatric social worker at San Francisco General Hospital.

Franklin Roosevelt's election to the presidency in 1932 brought many changes in both national and state politics.

Before Roosevelt, most black voters were Republicans. Democrats held all the political power in the South, and most Southern congressional members stood firmly opposed to any legislation that would provide first-class citizenship to blacks. They used the floors of Congress to spew out their blatant racism. Some even called blacks "niggers" on the floor.

But many of the black spokesmen for Republicanism, I later discovered, were just Uncle Toms who received a small sum of money during election times, which their white masters assumed bought the black vote. Perhaps it did, until Roosevelt was elected.

It was in 1934, during the Roosevelt reform time, that Fred Roberts was unseated by a liberal young black Democrat, Augustus Hawkins.

Hawkins was born in 1907, the same year as me, and is still living. He stayed in the Washington, D.C. area after his retirement.

There was a big difference in the Roberts and Hawkins style. Roberts played a very low-key role, but Hawkins, the first black Democratic member of the state legislature, fought hard on the floor of the Assembly for full enfranchisement of blacks and other persons who were discriminated against.

Hawkins, a pharmacist who had his own pharmacy on Central Avenue in Los Angeles, was an undiluted New Dealer who brought the style of an office holder who was concerned about the role he played in politics. He remained in the state Assembly until 1960, when he was elected to Congress from his district in Los Angeles, and served there until his retirement. He was succeeded in the district by Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who still holds that office.

In 1949, Hawkins was joined in the California Assembly by W. Byron Rumford, also a pharmacist, who owned a pharmacy in Berkeley. Rumford was the third black candidate elected to the state legislature, and the first from Northern California. He remained in the Assembly until 1966.

Rumford and Hawkins together pushed a bill through the California legislature that eliminated discrimination in employment for all companies that did business with the state. The bill is known as the Rumford Act, and still exerts a strong impact today, as one of the cornerstones of civil rights in California.

Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage. Send mailing address.

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